CVS Health is the first major brand to join the Quit Big Tobacco initiative started by Vital Strategies last year, taking the pledge to cut ties with any agency that counts tobacco and e-cigarette companies as clients.
The Woonsocket, R.I.-based drugstore chain that ceased selling cigarettes five years ago in a push to promote better health has begun rewriting its existing and future agency contracts to include the new restriction.
Plain and simple, contracts will state: “If you work for CVS Health, you cannot work for a tobacco or e-cigarette company,” CVS Health Chief Marketing Officer Norman de Greve told Ad Age.
He said the requirement has been inserted into all of the company’s new master service agreements and over the next few months it will be added to existing contracts with agencies. The company’s agency roster includes Interpublic Group of Cos.' UM; Omnicom Group's BBDO and Publicis Groupe's Digitas.
CVS Health already informally avoided working with agencies that also work with tobacco companies but this pledge formalizes its positioning in writing, added de Greve.
“It’s the right thing to do,” de Greve said. “It’s remarkable that it still exists and it’s being distributed.”
It's illegal to advertise cigarettes in traditional media including TV, and big tobacco companies were forced two years ago by the government to publish “corrective statements” that detailed (rather blandly) the dangers of smoking in retribution for misleading the public for decades through their advertising. Yet, cigarette companies spend an average of $8.7 billion a year on marketing efforts in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Vital Strategies, a New York-based public health organization, criticized tobacco and e-cigarette companies for continuing to target young audiences through evolved practices such as influencer marketing and kid-friendly flavors. It started the "Quit Big Tobacco" campaign in March 2018 and said these marketing tactics have led to a nearly 80 percent rise in vaping among high school students in the U.S. from 2017 to 2018.
Since its launch, more than 200 nonprofits such as The Truth Initiative and agencies including CPB and its holding company MDC; Omnicom's GSD&M and Project Worldwide's Argonaut have taken the pledge along with indies such as Kansas City-based Barkley; San Francisco's BarretSF; Finn Partners (which owns shops such as Small Army); and New York's Walrus.
CVS Health is the first corporate brand to make the commitment and de Greve said he hopes the company serves as inspiration for more to do so.
“We all have a responsibility to make the world a better place,” de Greve said. “Consumers are hungry for it,” adding that CVS Health’s “trust scores” have increased since the retailer’s decision to stop selling cigarettes.
If more brands do follow in CVS Health’s footsteps, the agencies reliant on big tobacco’s business could be in trouble. Publicis Groupe’s Leo Burnett, for example, counts Philip Morris USA parent Altria as one of its largest clients. The agency did not return a request for comment.
“You say you are a modern, cool company but you are giving money to something that kills half a million people a year. So are you really?” asks de Greve.